This post is adapted from my upcoming book Pitfalls of Fear-Driven Leaders and How to Overcome
Let me begin this chapter by saying that if you are a fraud, a high school dropout masquerading as a doctor or the CEO of a company that stole someone else’s patented idea, stop reading now. You really are a fraud and need to quit.
As for most of you honest, super competent readers who simply do not believe in your self-worth, here are some insights.
There is actually something called “Impostor Syndrome”. It manifests when despite positive feedback and accomplishments documenting your competence and even excellence, you cannot enjoy your own success because deep down inside you think it’s all a mistake. If people really knew your background, your inadequacies, your lack of experience, your intellectual shortfalls, they would reject you as their leader.
According to Kirsten Weir writing for the American Psychological Association this syndrome occurs among “high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.” These are not the mediocre failing students with sub par performance evaluations. These are actually the super star performers who think they’re “just OK”.
These are leaders driven by the fear that they are not who people think they are and that they will one day be found out. As a result, theydownplay every achievement, don’t take risks, are usually advanced in their careers by other people who notice their abilities because they often don’t feel worthy enough to press for their own promotions.
They attribute their success to luck which, in a fear driven leader, is just a maddening denial of the truth.
Aside from low self-esteem and the inability to enjoy recognition, such people do a poor job of leading. Most of us can detect when the person we are with needs a psychological boost in the form of verbal affirmations. If the person in need of constant admiration is also your boss, it shifts the balance of power, weakening the party in need. The boss who feels inadequate usually reacts in one of two ways – by being authoritarian and threatened by every perceived challenge or by being passive and allowing their staff to run circles around them. Either type is fear-driven.
The causes for Impostor Syndrome are varied. Some people cannot internalize positive feedback because of childhood wounds and traumas. Perfectionism can also lead to the syndrome because no one can ever reach perfection. It’s the brass ring moved further and further away even as you approach it.
Our self-image is an incorporation of what we know to be true about ourselves coupled with the feedback we have received from others all of our lives. If we receive contradictory feedback (i.e. I got excellent grades in school but my parents called me stupid) we have a choice of which feedback we decide is most accurate. If we consistently choose the more negative feedback there is no present reality strong enough to counteract the negative self-image.
Discrimination against women, minorities and other “outsider” groups have forced certain groups of people to work harder than dominant groups to achieve the same success in their chosen field. Often, when the disfranchised people finally do succeed they carry the baggage of constantly looking over their shoulder to see if it’s going to be discovered that they didn’t qualify after all. The best remedy for people in that situation is to find other women, minorities or peers who had to come up through the ranks under similar oppression.
In addition, how we talk to ourselves about ourselves matters. What may start out as false modesty (No, I’m not really that great a swimmer) can be absorbed into our psyche so that we’ve talked ourselves out of the truth. Even little phrases like, I hope I can, I might be OK at that, I’ve never succeeded that before, I doubt I can get better at it can sabotage self-esteem.
Clearing the Slate
Ask your peers and superiors for honest feedback Trusted colleagues can help you sift between your actual competencies and accomplishments and flattery. Every leader should have at least two “tell it like it is” go-to people.
Learn to trust objective criteria. Emotions are good, but in this instance ignore your feelings and just accept your feedback, good and bad, as fact. View what you hear as if it is someone else’s achievement. If you are in a position of leadership, unless you were hired by a friend or a relative, the stakes are too high to promote you just for favoritism and flattery.
Behave your way to success. Whether you want to or not, bite your tongue when praised and simply say, “Thank you” with a smile. Keep your qualifiers to yourself.
One painful truth is that a focus on one’s inadequacies is still a focus on yourself. A leader must turn the spotlight on the achievements of others. A leader must model for others a right-sized view of one’s own capabilities combined with a humility about their shortcomings. Graciousness towards oneself is an essential quality that fearful leaders lack. If you can learn to extend grace inwards there is enough of you left to extend it to others.
You can break the curse and own the truth about yourself and walk in it. Those who follow you need it. Be enough. You already are.